Students face incredible stress going through the college process. Their very self-worth is at stake. This article shows four things students and parents can do to diminish the stress and make the college process fun

One of the biggest problems I encounter in my coaching practice is unduly stressed out-students who see their college acceptances as a reflection of their own self-worth. This is particularly evident for students who attend highly competitive schools. It is magnified when they have highly accomplished parents, and it reaches an intolerable level if these highly accomplished parents even give off a scintilla of the vibe that they are expecting their child to gain admission into highly competitive colleges that the child fears may reject them. This toxic combination leads to low self-esteem, despair and depression, and even suicide.

How can students and parents avoid this debacle? The first thing they can do is not start the college process too late. When exactly a student should start will vary depending on the student, but in my opinion, an ideal scenario is doing a 90-minute overview of curriculum choices and some other matters between eighth and ninth grade, and then starting the process at a moderate pace somewhere between the end of ninth grade and the spring of tenth. Every year I work with students who call me during the senior year, and every year there are some who don’t contact me until after April of the senior year. I can still help these students, but they have significantly limited their options and they have exacerbated their stress level. If I start working with a student who is a rising tenth grader, a current tenth, or first semester eleventh grader, my goal is to have the test scores nailed, a few priority college visits completed, and the portion of the applications that students are responsible for completed and submitted by Labor Day of their senior year.

The second thing that reduces stress is something I try to repeat in every class I ever teach to middle school or high school students: “It’s not where you go, but it’s what you do when you get there and what you do when you get out of there.” What is important, though, is not whether I say this to students but whether parents first believe it, and secondly, say it. Even the slightest hint that a parent thinks a student should be applying to a school they don’t think they will get into will magnify their stress to the nth degree. Parents, you may think it is innocuous to say, “While we are in New York, why don’t we just tour Columbia?” But it isn’t necessary unless your child wants to visit and unless your child is a viable candidate for Columbia. This is particularly problematic if your child has the personality and temperament to not speak up.

The third thing is to give students proof that not going to a selective college will not hinder their life success or self-worth. The best approach I have used here is to have parents and students read the book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, by Frank Bruni. This book is cogently written to obliterate the myth that a student needs to attend a selective college to accomplish astonishing career success. The book accomplishes this masterfully by citing over 100 examples of prominent men and women who are leaders in their respective fields who did not attend designer colleges.

Finally, do not put too many unrealistic colleges on your school list. After hearing for the seventh time at an info session that the average student takes seven APs, has an A- average, has test scores between 31-34 on the ACT, and that last year was the most competitive year in a school’s history, all kinds of doubts will be looming in a student’s mind about whether they measure up. I like for students to get more good news than bad news with their college list. It diminishes stress and it is good for their confidence. The same advice applies to prospective college athletes. Don’t target too many colleges that are not realistic for you to be able to play at.

If you start early, pace yourself, and have realistic expectations, the college process can be a lot of fun. Some of my favorite times in my life were the college admission trips I took with my daughters.